The State of Online Journalism Today: Controversial

Ted Weinstein tweet on magazine publishing

On Tuesday, March 5, I found (via Twitter) the following piece by freelance journalist Nate Thayer:

A Day in the Life of a Freelance Journalist—2013

The post consists of an e-mail exchange between Thayer and an Atlantic editor, where Thayer is asked if he would repurpose a previously published piece for the Atlantic’s website. He is not offered any money, but is told he will gain exposure since Atlantic’s site enjoys 13 million readers per month.

For those familiar with the online world of publication, this exchange is hardly surprising or unusual. If you scan the posts at Who Pays Writers, you’ll see that $0 or maybe $50–$100 is common for very well-known sites. In fact, the more traffic a website gets, the more it can avoid payment by offering the carrot of exposure—which is indeed valuable and needed for some writers, but not all.

Thayer, in response to the offer of pay through exposure, says:

Frankly, I will refrain from being insulted and am perplexed how one can expect to try to retain quality professional services without compensating for them. Let me know if you have perhaps mispoken [sic].

As indignant as Thayer might be, I find his perplexed state to be rather disingenuous if he’s been keeping up at all with the evolution of online journalism. One can imagine a brief “No, thank you,” would have been the more graceful gesture, but on the other hand, if writers don’t express outrage at not being paid—and don’t take editors to task for it—can they really expect the situation to change? (Personally, I still like and advocate for the brevity of the “No, thanks,” answer. If editors hear “no” often enough and can’t get their hands on the content they want or need, that spurs change, too.)

Thayer’s post spread quickly via Twitter on Tuesday, with Atlantic editor Alexis Madrigal (@alexismadrigal) coming to the defense of Atlantic Digital. However, Madrigal is NOT the editor who was involved in the e-mail exchange above; he works for a different “channel” of Atlantic Digital, but is one of the most prominent and (in my mind) admirable editors involved with the digital side of the Atlantic, which operates independently from the print side.

Madrigal offered fascinating insights into the editorial operations of Atlantic Digital, including:

  • Atlantic’s channel editors have tiny freelance budgets, but independently control how things come in, what rates are, what the “rules” are, etc. (Tweet.) If he had more money, Madrigal implied he’d be more likely to hire a staffer than freelancers. (Tweet.) He said that he used to run a lot of outside material, but it was hard to control quality, hard to edit, and time consuming. (Tweet.)
  • Staffers and established contributors write most of the stories at Atlantic Online. He said that 90% of the traffic comes from these sources, not freelancers. “The site is almost entirely driven by top 15 writers or so, all paid.” (Tweet.) He later said a typical Atlantic staffer brings in 400K uniques per month (not clear how many articles a staffer typically writes, however), and a good freelance piece will bring in a median of 15K-25K uniques. (Tweet.) Freelancer Paul Ford (@ftrain) responded, “Ah so now I can understand the gap between Thayer’s POV and Atlantic POV. Starts to make more sense.” (Tweet.)
  • Broadly speaking, the norms under discussion are up in the air and inconsistent within publications and across different publications. (Tweet.) Others in the Twitter stream argued this meant that it’s important for Atlantic to articulate a clear vision, and that varying philosophies within a publication are detrimental to that vision and ultimately to survival. However, Madrigal responded by saying that the alternative is “centralized control of what is happening,” which he wants to avoid. In other words, as the technology channel leader, he presumably gets to call the shots, and that’s been good for him and that channel. (Tweet.)
  • For my unschooled readers, I should emphasize that the decentralized nature of Atlantic Online is exactly the opposite of what happens at most traditional print publications, which often have a rigid hierarchy. Based on my experience and observations, the decentralized structure of Atlantic Online is a growing and common phenomenon among progressive, digital publications. (Another example of a big brand employing a decentralized strategy is Forbes.)
  • The tension of quality vs. velocity (or quantity) hasn’t disappeared. A particularly revealing moment came with the following: “This is a complex battle to win when biz dev has one lever to push: velocity. They can’t say, ‘Write better stuff.'” (Tweet.) However, Madrigal also mentioned that since 2010 they’ve ratcheted down the number of pieces getting pushed out because of the downside and risk of low-quality work. Ultimately, he says they have to do both “fast” and “slow” work well. (Tweet.) And it’s exhausting. (Tweet.)

The discussion started to come to a close with these two tweets about the state of online journalism, which Madrigal argued was tough, but not depressing.

 

 

UPDATE (Tuesday, 4 p.m.): The Atlantic has posted an official statement on the matter, from James Bennett, editor in chief.

My thoughts so far:

  • From the perspective of the writer: If a piece of my work were solicited for The Atlantic, and I were offered no payment—just exposure—I’d take it. At this stage of my career, it’s an attractive offer if the material is already written. Was it a good deal for Nate Thayer? Based on his career profile, it’s easy to see why he said no. Every writer can make a different decision and still have it be the right decision.
  • From my perspective as VQR web editor: (1) I have been taken to task on Twitter (at least indirectly) for VQR’s payment for online work, which is $100 per post. A freelance journalist told VQR (on Twitter) that pay rate is insulting. For an original, in-depth reported piece, I agree. However, $100 is not a one-size-fits-all pay rate. It varies from writer to writer and piece to piece. (2) Strong online writers, with something unique or meaningful to say—who also drive traffic—are not easy to get. They are in high demand. And I would pay well for their work if they came to me, but they are not (even when solicited). I believe that is because VQR doesn’t offer sufficient exposure, plus our site is cutting edge only if you’re an online writer from 2004. So writers: Don’t tell me exposure or platform doesn’t matter. I know it does—just like relationships and networking matter. (3) VQR is still print-driven, at least to the extent that it probably shouldn’t even have a full-time web editor position. Nine months in, I have barely begun to solve the dilemma of what our online content strategy ought to be given the limited resources we have (both time and money), but I can already see that continually sourcing freelance content for online is not optimal, possibly detrimental.
  • From the perspective of a publications leader (who once provided a vision for a brand): I hope there can be a compromise, somehow, between having a decentralized structure for Atlantic Online, but still having some brand consistency or philosophy in how content is sourced and pushed out. Must these two things be mutually exclusive? My idealistic side wants to say no—unless the various channels at Atlantic are SO different from one another that they absolutely must work under different business models. But I doubt this is the case?
  • From the perspective of someone who has long worked in publishing: I know few people, if any, who go into publishing (or journalism) for great pay. It’s usually about love, passion, a particular set of values, and the resolve to do something that’s very hard, not well paid, but ultimately rewarding in other ways. Some writers have chosen the freelance game, the same way others have chosen to work on the inside, for a regular paycheck, and (again, expressing my idealism), I believe there’s a shared set of goals. It’s far more productive to work together than to launch full-scale attacks, but that’s not to say we should hold back on constructive criticism or an idea exchange of how things can work better. For-profit publications that are (on the whole) ethical, transparent, and respected probably have the hardest time of all finding a sustainable business model. What do we gain by trashing them?

This is a complex and controversial issue, something that we discuss every week at my UVA class in digital media and publishing. I welcome discussion and comments below, but let’s avoid black-and-white declarations or finger pointing. I’d love to hear about particular online publications, websites, or outlets that you think are getting it RIGHT.

For more on this issue

  • To read a phenomenal exchange on this issue—among career freelance writers, editors, and other media insiders—visit this Branch conversation.
  • The Problem With Online Journalism by Felix Salmon offers an excellent analysis. He writes: “The Atlantic magazine only comes out ten times per year, which means it publishes roughly as many articles in one year as the Atlantic’s digital operations publish in a week. When the volume of pieces being published goes up by a factor of 50, the amount paid per piece is going to have to go down” … and … “At a high-velocity shop like Atlantic Digital, freelancers just slow things down—as well as producing all manner of back-end headaches surrounding invoicing and the like. The result is that Atlantic Digital’s freelancer budget is minuscule.”
  • Read Alexis Madrigal’s response to what happened: A Day in the Life of a Digital Editor, 2013
  • Finally, in a somewhat flip piece, but also important: “How Have You Devalued Professional Writing Today?” by Mark Armstrong (Longreads) helps everyone think more broadly and deeply about the issue.

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Posted in Electric Speed, Publishing Industry, Work-Life and tagged , , , .
Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (2017).

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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50 Comments on "The State of Online Journalism Today: Controversial"

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Joe Flood
3 years 6 months ago
Thanks for the great roundup on this issue! You’re very fair to both sides, perhaps because you’ve worked on both sides. I would’ve taken the $100 deal without question – the exposure would’ve been worth it for me. However, if I was an experienced reporter who put in a lot of legwork on a piece then, no way. The same dilemma holds true in photography – every photographer has to figure out where they stand on free/cheap work. I take photos a lot around DC and get asked to use them. I’ve been asked for free photos by blogs (yes),… Read more »
Kevin Davis
3 years 6 months ago

I object to the nonprofit statement. First of all, MANY nonprofits – including several large, mid-sized and small members of the Investigative News Network – employ freelancers and pay for their services. That said, nonprofits are inherently mission-driven charities for the public good. Volunteerism is a key component of charity work. Tarring a growing and increasingly vibrant sector of the journalism field isn’t going to help anyone in this conversation.

disqus_psG3Gk9bT6
disqus_psG3Gk9bT6
3 years 6 months ago

It wasn´t a hundred dollar deal, dude. He was being asked to do it for free.

Angela Corrias
3 years 6 months ago

I understand there are many perspectives, the writer’s, the editor’s and the publisher’s, but for as many as they are, the very core of the problem is that a writer, at the end of the day, needs to eat in order to survive.

Tom
Tom
3 years 6 months ago

Several weeks ago (maybe longer), Madrigal tweeted to ask why any professional writer would write for Medium (he was addressing Robin Sloan). I don’t see why he questioned people writing for free on Medium but thinks writing for free for The Atlantic is any different.

Liz
Liz
3 years 6 months ago
Thanks for the summing up. I’m new to journalism, pretty much having had to start by writing for free, building up a portfolio. This does come as a worry though, for those of us in my generation (in my twenties). I’ve been a blogger since 2005 when blogging was still in its infancy, and have only been an online content journalist for 2 years. However, I’ve found that working for free does lead to good things, even if it is hard and money is tight. I’m now the editor of an up and coming organisation called Deaf Unity in the… Read more »
Robin Rowland
3 years 6 months ago
The Thayer case is just that tip of the iceberg. I have seen more and more complaints online in the past couple of months from experienced established freelancers who are now expected to “work for exposure” which they don’t need. Thus the world wide reaction to Thayer. Whether large corporations (which these days are not as ethical as you assume, especially if the policy is set by bean counting accountants and lawyers) or small organizations, the standard expectation today is that you should work for free. Increasingly it is the editors, or other commissioning people take that polite no as… Read more »
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[…] A look inside the operations of a major online publication—The Atlantic—and the evolving standards of how content is assigned, sourced, and paid for. The post consists of an e-mail exchange between Thayer and an Atlantic editor, where Thayer is asked if he would repurpose a previously published piece for the Atlantic’s website. He is not offered any money, but is told he will gain exposure since Atlantic’s site enjoys 13 million readers per month. For those familiar with the online world of publication, this exchange is hardly surprising or unusual. If you scan the posts at Who Pays Writers,… Read more »
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[…] Felix Salmon tried to analyze what happened to Thayer in a blog post at Reuters, and came to the conclusion that freelancing is a lot harder to make a living at than it used to be — in part because online media works in such a way that having staff writers is a lot more efficient than using outside contributors. But I think he missed the most important aspect of what Thayer’s treatment says about the practice of writing now, and the economics of digital media (writer and editor Jane Friedman has a good overview of the issues). […]

trackback

[…] Felix Salmon tried to analyze what happened to Thayer in a blog post at Reuters, and came to the conclusion that freelancing is a lot harder to make a living at than it used to be — in part because online media works in such a way that having staff writers is a lot more efficient than using outside contributors. But I think he missed the most important aspect of what Thayer’s treatment says about the practice of writing now, and the economics of digital media (writer and editor Jane Friedman has a good overview of the issues). […]

trackback

[…] Felix Salmon tried to analyze what happened to Thayer in a blog post at Reuters, and came to the conclusion that freelancing is a lot harder to make a living at than it used to be — in part because online media works in such a way that having staff writers is a lot more efficient than using outside contributors. But I think he missed the most important aspect of what Thayer’s treatment says about the practice of writing now, and the economics of digital media (writer and editor Jane Friedman has a good overview of the issues). […]

ClaudiaC
3 years 6 months ago
” At this stage of my career, it’s an attractive offer if the material is already written.” Me too! I’d be delighted at the chance to share my work with a larger audience. I’m only 5 years into my fiction career. I need the exposure so that I can continue to grow my readership. But my goal is to have a “rest of my life” career filled with lots of books and lots of stories and lots of articles. So one article for exposure is totally worth it to me. Will it be in 10 years? I don’t know. I… Read more »
pleiadesbee
pleiadesbee
3 years 6 months ago

My highest-paid writing assignments have come from small colleges that offer little in terms of exposure. My lowest-paid writing assignments (all $0) have come from The Huffington Post, The New York Times and TIME. The key, I think, is to balance the two (high pay vs high exposure). The goal, of course, is to achieve both in one assignment (high pay + high exposure). Still working on that last one.

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[…] A look inside the operations of a major online publication—The Atlantic—and the evolving standards of how content is assigned, sourced, and paid for. The post consists of an e-mail exchange between Thayer and an Atlantic editor, where Thayer is asked if he would repurpose a previously published piece for the Atlantic’s website. He is not offered any money, but is told he will gain exposure since Atlantic’s site enjoys 13 million readers per month. For those familiar with the online world of publication, this exchange is hardly surprising or unusual. If you scan the posts at Who Pays Writers,… Read more »
Peter Erikson
Peter Erikson
3 years 6 months ago
Jane says: “I know few people, if any, who go into publishing (or journalism) for great pay. It’s usually about love, passion, a particular set of values, and the resolve to do something that’s very hard, not well paid, but ultimately rewarding in other ways.” She’s right — and very outdated. I’ve been a journalist for 30-plus years, and the pay was, up through the recession, fairly decent; one could make a living, get benefits and raise a family. The key component here is compensation. If you take away that factor — and it has been taken away — then… Read more »
Ayun Halliday
3 years 6 months ago

Chuck this noise, Farley. I’m gonna make another zine.

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[…] After days of debate and comments and posts and counter-posts, the issue remains no more nearly resolved than when Jane Friedman wrote those lines. The Virginia Quarterly Review digital strategist and editor—and long-suffering host of Writing on the Ether—probably made more sense of the Nate Thayer affair than anyone else in her piece The State of Online Journalism Today: Controversial. […]

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[…] Felix Salmon tried to analyze what happened to Thayer in a blog post at Reuters, and came to the conclusion that freelancing is a lot harder to make a living at than it used to be — in part because online media works in such a way that having staff writers is a lot more efficient than using outside contributors. But I think he missed the most important aspect of what Thayer’s treatment says about the practice of writing now, and the economics of digital media (writer and editor Jane Friedman has a good overview of the issues). […]

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[…] Here is a rule that I have about email: Once more than five people send me a link to something, I have to really read it and Have Thoughts. This week, it will not surprise you to hear that the link I keep getting emailed is Nate Thayer’s dust-up with The Atlantic when one of their online editors asked him to write a 1200 word article for “exposure.” (If you missed this whole deal and want a good summary of how The Atlantic and general world responded to Nate’s post, check out Jane Friedman’s excellent write-up here.) […]

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[…] Friedman analyzes the controversial state of online journalism today, while this infographic shows what technologies are used by travel […]

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[…] People have been talking this week about freelancer Nate Thayer’s post, “A Day in the Life of a Freelance Journalist.” You can read an example of the discussion here. See also Jane Friedman’s take on “The State of Online Journalism Today: Controversial.” […]

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[…] Jane Friedman, in «The state of Online Journalism Today», ammette che da autrice avrebbe potuto accettare l’offerta di The Atlantic, sebbene si […]

Tom Chandler
Tom Chandler
3 years 6 months ago
There is a lot going on here beyond the obvious “paid vs unpaid” issue, and in the face of at least some of The Atlantic’s less palatable actions, to suggest Thayer should simply have said “No thanks” is being a little obtuse. Of course Thayer was mad. At the very best, the editor wasted his time (and that of the UK people). Through a couple emails and a phone call, she kept mum on the payment issue. Remember, they didn’t want Thayer’s article, they wanted him to condense it, and to do so in a hurry. If the editor doesn’t… Read more »
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[…] Jane Friedman, in “The state of Online Journalism Today“, admits that she could have accepted the offer of The Atlantic, although it depends on the […]

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[…] Jane Friedman, in «The state of Online Journalism Today», ammette che da autrice avrebbe potuto accettare l’offerta di The Atlantic, sebbene si tratti […]

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[…] to every possible opportunity to promote and share his skills, and the other is about how the online journalism  industry expects writers to work for free much of the time. In other words, just say “no.” […]

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[…] editor Alexis Madrigal and freelance journalist Nate Thayer – and its ensuing discussions (see Jane Friedman for an overview) – only highlight the fact that digital publishing is here to stay, and it […]

trackback
[…] A look inside the operations of a major online publication—The Atlantic—and the evolving standards of how content is assigned, sourced, and paid for. The post consists of an e-mail exchange between Thayer and an Atlantic editor, where Thayer is asked if he would repurpose a previously published piece for the Atlantic’s website. He is not offered any money, but is told he will gain exposure since Atlantic’s site enjoys 13 million readers per month. For those familiar with the online world of publication, this exchange is hardly surprising or unusual. If you scan the posts at Who Pays Writers,… Read more »
trackback
3 years 6 months ago

[…] Between them you’ll find every link you need to read up. “As indignant as Thayer might be,” Friedman wrote in a comprehensive post that covers all […]

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[…] The State of Online Journalism Today: Controversial. The former editor of Writer’s Digest comments from the perspective of an online editor who makes assignments that pay poorly, with excellent links. […]

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[…] a few major publications don’t offer compensation when publishing digital freelance reporting, as Jane Friedman noted. This trend is unlikely to change as readers support websites such as The Huffington Post that rely […]

trackback
[…] A look inside the operations of a major online publication—The Atlantic—and the evolving standards of how content is assigned, sourced, and paid for. The post consists of an e-mail exchange between Thayer and an Atlantic editor, where Thayer is asked if he would repurpose a previously published piece for the Atlantic’s website. He is not offered any money, but is told he will gain exposure since Atlantic’s site enjoys 13 million readers per month. For those familiar with the online world of publication, this exchange is hardly surprising or unusual. If you scan the posts at Who Pays Writers,… Read more »
trackback
[…] A look inside the operations of a major online publication—The Atlantic—and the evolving standards of how content is assigned, sourced, and paid for. The post consists of an e-mail exchange between Thayer and an Atlantic editor, where Thayer is asked if he would repurpose a previously published piece for the Atlantic’s website. He is not offered any money, but is told he will gain exposure since Atlantic’s site enjoys 13 million readers per month. For those familiar with the online world of publication, this exchange is hardly surprising or unusual. If you scan the posts at Who Pays Writers,… Read more »
trackback

[…] engagement, and yet there are many writers who refuse to supply content unless it’s paid for (here’s Jane Friedman’s overview of just one example). Over the years, how have you as a professional navigated the fiscal versus social economies when […]

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